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You're Suing ME?! Adding Insult to Injury to Creditors of Bankrupt Debtors

Aug 17, 2007
In the course of managing a bankruptcy-centered law practice, one notices that certain themes tend to recur. One of the things that seems, repeatedly and quite understandably, to make the blood of credit managers in bankruptcy cases boil, is the prospect of being sued for a 'preference' while they are already stuck with a bad account receivable. This seems to many vendors to be the ultimate outrage. Having shipped goods, or rendered services on credit, in good faith, and in the expectation of being paid, and then, having already been burned (often for substantial sums) by the bankruptcy filing itself, they may find themselves pursued by a trustee or other estate representative, to give back the smaller amount they received on account of their claim within the 90-day period preceding the bankruptcy filing.

After 25-odd years of minor tinkering with the preference laws as drafted in the Bankruptcy Code, which came into effect in 1979, Congress has, for the first time, and in response to intense lobbying by creditor-based interest groups, made significant, and wide-ranging changes which will, in the view of this author, work a sea change in this area.

First of all, we need to understand what a preferential payment is, and why the bankruptcy laws allow for their recovery, before exploring, in very broad strokes, for purposes of this article, how and why the recent amendments to the Bankruptcy Code have helped 'level the playing field.'

The purpose of making preferential payments recoverable is to promote equality (or, more accurately, "equitable-ness") of distribution among creditors. In other words, the pain should be shared on a reasonably equitable basis by those who are on the receiving end of bad receivables. To that end, certain payments made by troubled debtors, during the 90-day window preceding the bankruptcy filing are subject to being brought back into the estate for redistribution, on an equitable basis, to the creditor body at large. There are a number of other technical requirements for a payment to be preferential, but these are beyond the scope of this article, and creditors are encouraged to seek appropriate legal counsel as needed.

On the surface, this seems reasonably fair. After all, why should creditors who have a closer relationship with the bankrupt company, or who just scream louder, be paid while the other guy gets left holding the bag. But, alas, here's the dirty little secret of preference claims. For the most part, though not exclusively, they are pursued, by trustees in liquidation cases, in which there will ultimately be little or no recovery for unsecured creditors. So who gets the money recovered in these preference litigations? Why, the trustees, their lawyers and accountants, of course, whose rights to payment come before everyone else. So rather than being a vehicle for equitable redistribution of limited funds of an insolvent debtor, the preference statute has been used as a tool for trustees and their professionals to build an estate as a source of trustee fees, and legal and accounting fees. In most such cases, the creditors end up with nothing at all, except the privilege of paying twice.

On the other hand, the drafters of prior legislation wanted to encourage vendors to continue selling goods to troubled companies so as not to exacerbate an already difficult situation and bring on unnecessary or premature bankruptcies. So various defenses to preference claims were introduced, to exempt certain payments made contemporaneously, or in the ordinary course of business and within invoice terms, from preference attack. These concepts, however, still left the burden on the creditor/defendant to prove these defenses, and they often found that it was easier and cheaper just to 'pay up' or settle the claims, however distasteful it seemed to them

So what has the new bankruptcy law done for these creditors? Well, it has, among other significant changes, substantially tightened up the 'ordinary course' defense, making it substantially easier for creditors to establish them, by creating both a 'subjective' and an 'objective test' (again, the details of this are too technical for the scope of this article). Perhaps even more importantly, Congress has now exempted smaller payments from the reach of preference attack and changed venue provisions for others, thus requiring trustees or other estate representatives to sue where the preference recipient is located, rather than in the 'home' bankruptcy court. Previously, the daunting prospect of defending on the other side of the country might well induce a creditor to settle a case even of dubious merit because of the expense involved of travel and the hiring of local counsel in a far-off district. Now, in many cases, the economics of this situation have been turned on their heads, and it might well be the trustee who will have to think twice, or three times, about bringing 'nuisance' preference cases when they have to be prosecuted in foreign jurisdictions.

Thus, although this legislation is very new, and largely untested, it seems that creditors in bankruptcy cases will, at least from their viewpoint, be getting a fairer shake, and will less often be having insult added to injury by having to enlarge the size of their already uncollectible receivables.
About the Author
Warren R. Graham is an attorney with the New York Law Firm of Cohen Tauber Spievack & Wagner LLP. He specializes in the field of Bankruptcy and Creditors' Rights. Additional professional information on him may be found at http://www.ctswlaw.com.
E-mail: wgraham@ctswlaw.com
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